Image of an elderly nursing home resident receiving help with feeding by a nursing assistant

Having sustained low wages is linked to faster memory decline, according to new findings from researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Low-wage jobs have been associated with risk factors for cognitive decline, such as depression, obesity and high blood pressure, but the study is the first to make a direct connection between low wages and late-life cognitive functioning, said co-author Katrina Kezios, PhD, in the department of epidemiology.

The investigators used health data for more than 2,800 individuals born between 1936 and 1941 from the national Health and Retirement Study. A low wage was defined as an hourly wage less than two-thirds of the federal median wage for the corresponding year. 

Participants were categorized by their earnings between 1992 and 2004, either never earned low wages, intermittently earned low wages, or always earned low wages. The researchers then examined the relationship between wages and memory decline from 2004 to 2016.

The aging brain 

When compared with workers who never earned low wages, memory declined significantly faster among the low-wage earners. This amounted to about one excess year of cognitive aging per 10-year period. 

With the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour since 2009, social policies aimed at improving the financial well-being of low-wage workers may be especially beneficial for cognitive health, said senior author Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, PhD. 

The researchers encourage future work to determine how an increase in the federal minimum hourly wage might affect the number of dementia cases and excess years of cognitive aging.

Full findings were presented this week at the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, and will be published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

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